The orishas are the emissaries of Olodumare or God almighty. They rule over the forces of nature and the endeavors of humanity. They recognise themselves and are recognised through their different numbers and colors which are their marks, and each has their own favorite foods and other things which they like to receive as offerings and gifts. In this way we make our offerings in the manner they are accustomed to, in the way they have always received them, so that they will recognise our offerings and come to our aid.
The orishas are often best understood by observing the forces of nature they rule over. For instance, you can learn much about Oshún and her children by watching the rivers and streams she rules over and observing that though she always heads toward her sister Yemayá (the Sea) she does so on her own circuitous route. Also observe how the babbling brook and the flash flood reflect her changeable moods. As you observe the orishas at work in the world and in your own lives you will gain a better understanding of them and their ways. Yes, they are complex, but no more so than any other living being such as you or I. We are also blessed from time to time in the religion with the opportunity to meet the orishas face to face during a bembé where one or more of their priests will be mounted (see trance possession).
Elegba (also referred to Eleggua or Elegguá) is the owner of the roads and doors in this world. He is the repository of ashé. The colors red and black or white and black are his and codify his contradictory nature. In particular, Elegba stands at the crossroads of the human and the divine, as he is child-like messenger between the two worlds. In this role, it is not surprising that he has a very close relationship with the orisha of divination, Orunmila. Nothing can be done in either world without his permission. Elegba is always propitiated and always called first before any other orisha as he opens the door between the worlds and opens our roads in life. He recognises himself and is recognised by the numbers 3 and 21.
Ogún is the god of iron, war and labor. He is the owner of all technology and because this technology shares in his nature, it is almost always used first for war. As Elegba opens the roads, it is Ogún that clears the roads with his machete. He is recognised in the numbers 7 and the colors green and black.
Oshosi is the third member of the group known as the Guerreros or Warriors, and is received along with Elegba, Ogún and Osun in order to protect the Guerreros initiate and to open and clear their roads. Oshosi is the hunter and the scout of the orishas and assumes the role of translator for Obatalá with whom he has a very close relationship. His colors are blue and yellow.
Obatalá is the kindly father of all the orishas and all humanity. He is also the owner of all heads and the mind. Though it was Olorun who created the universe, it is Obatalá who is the creator of the world and humanity. Obatalá is the source of all that is pure, wise peaceful and compassionate. He has a warrior side though through which he enforces justice in the world. His color is white which is often accented with red, purple and other colors to represent his/her different paths. White is most appropriate for Obatalá as it contains all the colors of the rainbow yet is above them. Obatalá is also the only orisha that has both male and female paths.
Oyá is the ruler of the winds, the whirlwind and the gates of the cemetery. Her number is nine which recalls her title of Yansa or "Mother of Nine" in which she rules over the egun or dead. She is also known for the colors of maroon, flowery patterns and nine different colors. She is a fierce warrior who rides to war with Shangó (sharing lightning and fire with him) and was once the wife of Ogún.
Oshún rules over the sweet waters of the world, the brooks, streams and rivers, embodying love, fertility. She also is the one we most often approach to aid us in money matters. She is the youngest of the female orishas but retains the title of Iyalode or great queen. She heals with her sweet waters and with honey which she also owns. She is the femme fatale of the orishas and once saved the world by luring Ogún out of the forests using her feminine wiles. And,in her path or manifestation of Ibú Ikolé she saved the world from draught by flying up to heaven (turning into a vulture in the process). Ikolé means Messenger of the House (of Olodumare). For this reason all who are to be initiated as priests, no matter what orisha rules their head, must go to the river and give account of what they are about to do. She recognises herself in the colors yellow and gold and her number is five. Peacocks and vultures are hers and we use them often to represent her.
Yemayá lives and rules over the seas and lakes. She also rules over maternity in our lives as she is the Mother of All. Her name, a shortened version of Yeyé Omo Eja means "Mother Whose Children are the Fish" to reflect the fact that her children are uncountable. All life started in the sea, the amneotic fluid inside the mother's womb is a form of sea where the embryo must transform and evolve through the form of a fish before becoming a human baby. In this way Yemayá displays herself as truly the mother of all. She, and the root of all the paths or manifestations, Olokun is the source of all riches which she freely gives to her little sister Oshún. She dresses herself in seven skirts of blue and white and like the seas and profound lakes she is deep and unknowable. In her path of Okutti she is the queen of witches carrying within her deep and dark secrets.
Perhaps the most 'popular' of the orishas, Shangó rules over lightning, thunder, fire, the drums and dance. He is a warrior orisha with quick wits, quick temper and is the epitomy of virility. Shangó took the form of the fourth Alafin (supreme king) of Oyó on Earth for a time. He is married to Obba but has relations with Oyá and Oshún. He is an extremely hot blooded and strong-willed orisha that loves all the pleasures of the world: dance, drumming, women, song and eating. He is ocanani with Elegba, meaning they are of one heart. When one sees the quickness with which lightning makes short work of a tree or a fire rage through an area, one has witnessed the temper of Shangó in action. Though he traded the Table of Ifá to Orunmila in exchange for the gift of dance, his children have an innate ability for divination. To acknowledge the greatness of this king, all in the religion raise up on the toes of our feet (or rise out our chairs if we are sitting) at the mention of his name. His colors are red and white and he recognises himself in the numbers four and six. He is most often represented by a double headed axe.
Orunmila is the orisha of wisdom and divination. He was the only orisha allowed to witness the creation of the universe by Olorun and bears witness to our destinies in the making as well. This is the source of his title of Eleri Ipin or "Witness to Destiny in its Creation". His priests, the babalawos or "Fathers of the Secrets" must devote themselves entirely to the practice of divination and the accompanying arts. Through the Table of Ifá his priests unfold the secrets of the universe and the secrets of the unfolding of our lives. His colors are green and yellow which reflect Orunmila's relationship with Osayín (the secrets of the plant world) and with Oshún, who is his apeteví with whom he has an extremely close relationship. Orunmila is wisdom and Oshún is knowledge, for wisdom without knowledge is useless, and one who has knowledge without wisdom is merely a danger to themselves and others.